Coronavirus Diary, Day X

I can't tell one day from the other anymore

Spotted in Paris

For the garbage collectors: “Thank you to the everyday heroes, take good care of yourselves.”


If this is true, we’re even more hosed than I thought

From the The American Society for Microbiology:

One challenge that has come to light is the supply shortage for SARS-CoV-2 PCR reagents. We are deeply concerned that as the number of tests increases dramatically over the coming weeks, clinical labs will be unable to deploy them without these critical components. Increased demand for testing has the potential to exhaust supplies needed to perform the testing itself. This could include chemicals or plastics, for example, and could affect tests developed and offered by clinical or public health laboratories and/or (when they become available in the United States), commercial tests. We applaud the CDC for revising their guidelines for COVID-19 testing on March 9, 2020 to collect one specimen swab instead of two. This will cut the amount of testing reagents needed in half, which is a critical measure to take during a public health emergency such as this.

In The New York Times, Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker write that in three or four weeks, there will be a major shortage of chemical reagents for coronavirus testing, so any public health response that counts on widespread testing in the United States is doomed.

I had not considered this possibility, and my heart sank when I read it. I don’t know if they’re right, but it sounds plausible, and if it is true, I have no idea whether there’s an obvious path out.

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Coronavirus power grabs

In Plovdiv, a sleepy Bulgarian town I visited about fifteen years ago, prosecutors have launched an inquiry into two doctors whom they’ve accused of “creating panic,” and '“spreading fake news.” Last week, the Plovdiv Regional Crisis Headquarters ordered St. Mina hospital to become a Temporary Infectious Disease Clinic to take over coronavirus patients if the capacity of other hospitals is exhausted.

The head of the cardiology department, Tsvetan Devedzhiev, and the night shift officer, Dr. Rumen Stoilov, issued an open letter criticizing the headquarters decision. They complained about the lack of any protective equipment—masks, respirators and even surgical gowns and caps. They wrote some of the staff had already quit for that reason.

The Economic Police—I did not know Bulgaria had such a thing—received the complaint, after which the doctors were immediately called for questioning and interrogated.

The conservative-populist GERB party is in a coalition with three Bulgarian far-right parties, which as resulted in an official program of xenophobia directed against the Roma. One of them, the VMRO, is led by Krassimir Karakachanov, who describes the Roma as “ferocious anthropoids.” In 2019, after an incident in Voivodinovo, Bulgaria, in which two Roma men beat up a Bulgarian army officer, Karakachanov called for a “final solution to the gypsy question.” In response to the emergence of photo featuring his party members performing Nazi salutes, Simeonov said, “Who knows what prank photos I have from Buchenwald?”

Later that year, Sofia’s synagogue and an anti-fascist memorial were vandalized. Recently, obituary notices invited people to commemorate the anniversary of Hitler’s death at Dupnitsa’s Jewish cemetery. Meanwhile, Roma housing was torched by arsonists.

GERB pretends not to notice neo-Nazi events. Every year, a large-scale, torch-lit neo-Nazi parade, the Lukovmarch, takes place in Sofia, attracting neo-Nazis from all over Europe to march in honor of Nazi collaborator General Hristo Lukov. GERB and VMRO voted against banning this march. GERB also backs explicitly bigoted policies against the Roma.

In response to the World Jewish Congress’s efforts to ban the march, neo-Nazis targeted targeted its executive vice-president, Robert Singer, with such messages as this one:

No mister, with a name of a brand of sewing machines, the problem of Bulgaria is not Lukovmarch. The problem is that there are people with too long noses like you, who are burning with desire, snooping where they do not belong. But be sure that whatever you do, General Lukov will receive a worthy honor from the Bulgarian youth!

Shortly before prosecutors began their inquiry into the two doctors, GERB MPs had proposed five-year prison sentences for purveyors of “fake news about infectious disease.”

Hours before, Bulgaria’s attorney general, Ivan Geshev, had called for a “timely, swift and adequate change in Bulgarian law” to contain “fake panic news.” Geshev has described himself as “the gravedigger of Bulgarian democracy.”

In calling for the change in the law, Geshev said, “The Bulgarian Penal Code is from the time of Comrade Todor Zhivkov and the texts are morally obsolete. We are now reaping the fruits of it.” Nonetheless, the prosecutor’s used precisely these Zhivkov-era texts to persecute these Plovdiv doctors. 

The EU has never been great about this sort of thing—they’ve never before put up much of a fuss when one of their members has exhibited what we now euphemistically call “democratic backsliding,” so I don’t expect them to now. But they’re fools not to take this seriously, and fools not to take Orbán’s transformation of Hungary into a full-blown dictatorship seriously. The EU obviously has its hands full right now, but Europe may emerge from this crisis to find itself ringed by a fully authoritarian Central and Eastern Europe that has made China and Russia its new patrons and allies in a world where the United States has gone on an extended holiday from history. If ever there were a moment for the EU to become serious about defending its high-minded values, it’s this one, because the coronavirus is clearly creating an irresistible temptation, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, to abandon all pretense of Westernization and adherence to the EU’s human rights standards and laws.

I have no idea why the EU must be so weak and feeble in the face of provocations like this. It actually does hold all the cards; a threat to cease propping these countries up economically unless they not only halt but reverse this trajectory would get their attention. I cannot see how it accrues to the EU’s advantage to be humiliated like this, or why it can’t see that its own security is threatened by the growing ring of authoritarian and belligerent states of its periphery, states that are in growing thrall with China and Russia, inflamed by preposterous nationalist fantasies, reverting to their Soviet reflexes, and prone to bite the hand that feeds them.

Surely the EU is now wholly focused on the coronavirus and the economic devastation it has trailed in its wake, but it is in danger—as usual—of tunnel-vision and myopia. Orbán has used the virus as the pretext to arrogate to himself emergency powers and dismantle the vestigial remnants of Hungarian democracy by shutting down Parliament, abolishing elections, passing laws to punish those who “publicize false or distorted facts,” eradicate what remained of Hungarian press freedom, assume dictatorial powers, and meanwhile do little to strengthen the Hungarian health system. As Michael Kaplan writes,

The foolish Horthy, the Hungarian fascists and the communists were not as skillful as this regime in destroying any remnant of liberal democracy. Today the nightmare of salami tactics has hit the Hungarian people. Who is next?

The answer is obvious: Everyone’s next, unless Europe for once in its benighted history has the foresight to say: No, and no further. Covid-19 cannot be the excuse for ignoring the crises in Central and Eastern Europe, or Italy’s flirtation with the authoritarian behemoths that are openly waging war on it’s EU and NATO allies.

It’s unclear to me whether the EU can walk or chew gum, but if it can’t manage to do both—deal with Europe’s outbreak of coronavirus and its outbreak of despotism—it will return both to the sanitary standards and the geopolitics of 1790. Rule by a squabbling, corrupt, inefficient, out-of-touch, bureaucracy is imperfect, but at least it is not an evil empire, or war, and there has never been anything better in Europe’s history. The postwar years have been Europe’s only spring.

Perhaps—it’s a remote chance, but we must all retain hope—the coronavirus will turn Brussels’ bureaucrats into serious people. Europe is on its own, now, and if it doesn’t rescue itself, no one else will. That, certainly, is clear.


The view from your pandemic

Paris

The applause at 8:00 pm is ridiculous. They’d be better off telling people who don’t respect the quarantine to go home.

On the Place d’Aligre there are kids riding bikes, people going grocery shopping in couples instead of going alone. They’re playing ball, chatting away—incredible irresponsibility.

I’ve even seen people strolling around, not the least bit embarrassed, wearing N95 masks despite the order to bring them to the hospital.

My wife is a doctor in that hospital. They don’t have enough masks. One of our sons is doctor in the same hospital. Two health care workers are sick already. So instead of singing and applauding at 8:00 pm,

  1. Stay at home.

  2. Tell people who think this is a joke to go home.

  3. Bring your masks to the hospital.

That would be appreciation for health care workers.


Delhi

My area: construction, workers, hawkers, small traders who are forced into complete idleness, lying around and watching their cell phones all day. I asked some and none of them know anyone who is sick. It us surreal to see the economy go into catalepsy for no visible reason. I hope all these people will have enough to survive, but given their very low incomes on normal times I worry about them.

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Madrid

The army and police are on the streets and they are charge fines, every day, to people that break the rules, or even arrest them. Our president has declared a state of emergency over the entire country, it is very serious. The most necessary products are available at the stores, but every day it’s more risky to go outside. …

My father goes to the supermarket with all the safety equipment (mask, gloves, and rope) once every ten days, buys all the groceries we need, and then we leave everything in the garage on quarantine for three days, when we wash everything with alcohol and bleach. I’m very lucky since my company allows me to work from home. My sister will finish med school next year and the government may call her soon to go help; however, she doesn’t feel ready since she doesn’t have any experience, only books. My mother is a doctor but she has some serious illnesses that make her very vulnerable to the virus, so for now, she is staying home, too.

On the other hand, hospitals are overwhelmed, they don’t have sanitary material and don’t have enough space for all the infected people. Yesterday, we reached 65,000 infected (and tested) people, but the real numbers are expected to be 20 times higher. People are dying at a rate of 700 per day, but the rate is growing. These numbers could seem low compared to the US, but Spain only has 46 million people.

The worst part is the homes for the elderly, especially in Madrid and Cataluña. The people running these residences aren’t doctors, and they’re overwhelmed when they realize that once the virus gets in the home, every single person gets infected, with a mortality rate of around 20 percent. This is why no one is able to go visit their relatives. The residences are locked down, and even if they’re dying, you can’t go to say goodbye. They’re doing FaceTime and burning the bodies at the crematorium immediately. This is why it’s very important that you don’t let the virus get in.

The virus is lethal to old and young people so tell your readers don’t play with this and stay at home. We don’t know how long we’ll be locked down, but we are expecting until end of April or mid May. The only way to stop this is to stay home, but it will cause huge damage to the world economy. This is an event we won’t forget for the rest of our lives, and I hope that when all this ends, we will be better society … I hope the world changes for the better after this. I hope this email helps you to prepare and get ready for the massive expansion of the virus in the US.


London

I must do an advance directive saying under no circumstances am I to be admitted to hospital. If I get an infection (UTI probably, but might be chest) I’ll need strong IV antibiotics which can only be delivered in hospital or hospice. Because of my growing antibiotic resistance, each time there’s a risk I’ll fail to respond to treatment. This is something you must be prepared for.

My condition is likely to deteriorate rapidly, and in current conditions it may be impossible to transfer me to the hospice. Everyone or almost everyone dying in hospital at the moment is dying alone, without their family, because the hospitals can’t manage visitors. It’s 100 percent essential L—— is there when I die, so I must keep out of hospital. Hospice is fine. They’re allowing visitors. No question of L—— not being there.

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Sydney

Life in Sydney is unsettled. Most disturbingly, it’s increasingly apparent that our government, or governments (Commonwealth, State and Territory), aren’t really sure what to do. Or if they do know what to do, they shrink from the price of doing it.  

We are in what's called Stage 2 measures: People are encouraged to work from home (but most places of work are not closed by fiat); parents may keep their children home from school if they want (but the public schools are open if they don’t want, albeit almost deserted); people are encouraged to minimise spending time away from home (but the public transport system continues to run, mostly empty). …

To give you some flavour: Bondi Beach: closed (by the Council, after the crowds ignored the social distancing request last weekend). Bondi-Tamarama Sea Walk: (open, and crowded). External borders: closed for entry to everyone but citizens and permanent residents, everybody returning from overseas has to be quarantined for two weeks. (Self-quarantine until this evening—because too many people were cheating they’ve made it mandatory—the government will now be shipping you off to a hotel for two weeks—at public expense—under the watchful eye of the police.) We’ve somehow still let in returning passengers from cruise ships, which has played hell with our transmissions. Australians are now banned from travelling overseas—under a clause in the Biosecurity Act. … Queensland managed to hold local elections yesterday—the news showed fist fights at the booths over social distancing or lack thereof.

Mask use: so far limited. Toilet paper and hand sanitiser: scarce. Nerves: frayed.

It seems like a confused response by the government (and citizens)—swinging between fear and optimism. Frankly, I don’t think a lot of people can quite comprehend the reality of this, and that colours their actions.

My mother, who lives with me, is 87—a high risk group. As a consequence, I’m vacillating between neurotic over-reaction and trying to project reassuring confidence. … In a strange way, some of it feels really familiar—imho, most gay men who lived through the earlier years of the HIV epidemic would find it so. I went to an HIV social thing when Covid19 was just starting to register on our radar, and one could tell that despite their bravado, some of the older men —compromised immune systems, in the high risk age group—didn’t think they’d make it through. They were there to say goodbye, which is nuts, and perhaps we’re all overreacting and being emotionally self-indulgent, but that’s where a lot of this community is right now.

A lot of people have lost their jobs quite suddenly—they tell us that up to a million jobs could eventually go as a result of the pandemic and response.  (Australia’s population is only 24 million.) So far: job losses 300,000 and rising. The news shows lines of people queueing up around the block to register for unemployment benefits; the website to do some of this online keeps crashing due to the demand. I’m truly blessed to be in a job that's going to keep paying me to do what I do from home, but it’s starting to affect my friends and people I know. The government is looking for ways to increase unemployment benefits so people can afford to shelter in place, limit evictions (for the same reason), but things are very uncertain right now.  It feels like it’s going to get very ugly.  


Somewhere in India

India being India, solutions are found if you can afford them. … medicine can be delivered, if you know the right person. Groceries will be delivered (eventually) if you live in a Housing Society, and everybody who lives there orders enough. I don’t know what these solutions will do in terms of to cutting off viral transmission, but all of this is necessary to live, and all these solutions depend on having money.

Most people don’t have money. Even if people are locals, many of them depend on their daily wages to buy food. If they don’t work, and they can’t during lockdown, they can’t feed their children. Sooner or later, they will go out and get food, whether they buy it or not. It’s a recipe for social upheaval—no matter how heavy handed the police get (and they are).  If people are lucky, charity will keep them from hunger, but charity is uncertain, everybody doesn’t get it; nobody can count on it.

And India has many many migrant workers—usually working at unskilled, low wage jobs, e.g. brick-making at kilns. They might live in shacks on site, but when the factory closes, they’re turfed out, they can’t get back to their villages because the trains and buses are stopped. It’s actually illegal for them to be out, but they have no choice, they’re walking back to their homes, without money or food.  …

The Spanish flu is estimated to have killed over 12 million Indians—about 5 percent of the population—and it’s terrifying to think that Covid19 could have a similar impact.

A lockdown really is the best (only) way to go in India. But a lockdown that doesn’t take into account the extreme food security vulnerability in the country can only save the patient by killing him. As usual, it’s the poor, and the lower castes, who will suffer the most. I really wonder how that will affect the country's stability. We already have a Naxalite movement that’s functional in one-third of the country. I can’t see how this won’t give that a huge boost, and if I’m honest, I can see why it should.

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Paris

Happy to report that after a brief stay at the hospital yesterday, I’m back home. Happily, my state is stable and there are people much more in need of respiratory assistance than me.

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Richmond

I’m an introvert by nature, so I reckon social distancing isn’t as hard on me as it is for others. My wife thought I was a Chicken Little when I started warning friends and family about the coronavirus, but now I spend most of my time trying to reassure her that things will be alright. …

My wife had surgery and was in the hospital when the coronavirus hit Central Virginia. It has been a horrible, early allergy season here, and I was afraid I’d be quarantined each time I went to visit her. She has three more weeks of recovery before she returns to the hospice facility where she works as an RN. They’re already preparing the facility for coronavirus overflow. They aren’t prepared, and the hospital system that runs the facility is critically short of prophylactic supplies. She feels guilty for not being there to do her part, but her coworkers are advising her to give her notice. So she’s at home with me, sewing masks and doing light gardening to while away the time. Having stopped going to church for a year or two, we’ve started watching daily Mass on television and praying the Rosary again.

I'm not looking forward to her return to work. My wife has lupus, and I have chronic respiratory problems, so we’re both at heightened risk for the disease. She’s insisting that the dog and I move an hour and a half away to a family member’s empty vacation home, so she doesn’t bring it home to me. I don’t look forward to being apart from her, especially during a crisis. And if something should happen to her, I don't know what I’d do.

I just hope this ends soon.  I don't know how much longer I can keep up morale here.  (At least the mask problem should be turning around by the time Sweetie goes back to work.)  

Oh, well, worse things happen at sea.


Berkeley

I help a homeless guy here. He’s from Burundi. We speak French. He has end stage liver disease. I’ve taken him to the doctor more than once and it is I who gives him his medication twice a day. Ironically, he’s so isolated he’s probably one of the safest people to be around. I have gloves to wear when I go out, plus a mask if needed.

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New York

I work on my piano technique, trudging through bits of Chopin, Bach, and jazz standards, while my girlfriend watches Korean dramas on Netflix right next to me. I’m pulled away from focusing on the technicality of my playing, sucked into the seductive plots of these gorgeous people from Seoul. I’m trying to make the best of this time to work diligently on my music. (Sidenote: I’m having vivid dreams constantly of myself back in highschool. Is this a result of the fact that isolated study feels like highschool all over again?) I preoccupy myself with the fate of my music, because it is the one thing, at least, I feel I can control. Though, in truth, I feel crazy …


Somewhere in Israel

I'm not 100 percent clear in my own head about why I’m as upset as I am. The world probably won’t end. Still, I can't get rid of this feeling of dread.

It doesn’t make sense. I mean none of us has it (as far as we know). And even if we get it, chances are we'll be okay. I just feel this terrible weight on my chest all the time, morning till night (and usually well into the night and in the middle of the night—last night I think I woke up four times, which is pretty standard). Everything is making me sad, even things that always used to do the opposite. I have lots of yarn in the house from my knitting days and pulled out my knitting books for some distraction and inspiration and couldn’t bring myself to settle on anything, even though that activity used to calm me greatly. I ended up just shoving the books back on the shelf and leaving the yarn packed away in its boxes. I can't seem to read anything (fiction I mean) as it all seems stupid and pointless. I listen to podcasts that were cued up for listening before the crisis hit and it all sounds ancient and foreign and pointless. …

The only thing I am interested in is protecting my children, period. I do not mean I will endanger other people on their behalf—I absolutely do not mean that—but I am not interested in endangering them unnecessarily on other people’s behalf. I already have to send them to the army, for fuck’s sake. That’s not enough? Let me at least keep them as far away from this fucking virus as I possibly can.


An Airport, America

I am in the last place I want to be, doing the last thing I want to do. I’m in a hub airport; I’ve no problem with airports in general, but I really don’t want to be in a continental cross contamination of this current virus. And I’ve just spent three days helping my younger daughter recover from a deliberate Xanax overdose. She took enough to be fatal and—thank you, Lord—she was found and whisked to the emergency room where they pumped her stomach. It is the fourth such attempt this calendar year.

She’s twenty one years old, so I can’t make her do anything. My wife and I
rushed across the country to her and pulled out all the stops to get her to
come home for a few weeks. Surely despair and quarantine cannot be a good
combination. Surely even a distraught and unstable young woman would see
that. But she does not see that. Our precious little girl is staying two thousand miles away from us where she feels she has built a life. A crippling life, to my eye, but an independent life to hers--and that's what matters to her in this season of her life. I don’t need to suggest to you my terror, because it's beyond description. A pandemic sets upon us just as my beloved little girl sinks into despondency. '‘Nightmare” is far too light a word.

Our world is burning with a virus. I’m doing everything I can to keep my little girl alive. The markets are all over the place. Add the Four Horsemen and a gaggle of zombies and we’re done here. Try as I may, I can't see much good coming of any of this. Yet, it’s into this madness and fear and poverty and angst that God speaks to us: I have a plan for you. It’s not a plan to wave a magic wand and make all of this go away. It’s a plan for you to work for the prosperity and thriving of this world. It’s a
plan for you to be faithful—and let me take care of the rest. … I’m trying to lean on a God who’s here in the worst of the storms, with a plan to use even us, even now, to do his will. It’s the best comfort I know. I hope it is of some comfort to you.

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Somewhere in East Asia

There is a deeper issue here, which is why Americans who are supposed to be adults and who have government responsibilities no longer seem to be able to plan anything. I had a conversation about two years ago with the late Andy Marshall about this. The conversation went on for about an hour, about half of which consisted of Andy just sitting quietly and thinking with his chin in his hand. He was not a normal person. But it was worth the wait most of the time, because when he finally came out of his Yoda trance, what he said was always worth listening to. And what he said, in very short simplified form, was that people who lived through the Depression, World War II, and the early years of the Cold War habituated themselves to thinking like planners. The next generation did not feel the same pressure, and so did not think that way. Also intriguing, he suggested that somehow the culture had moved away from an engineering approach to problems to a probabilistic, mathematical or statistical way of approaching things. I think I understand what he meant, but I wish I understood it better.

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